A Cautionary Tale

posted in: Writing, Teaching | 0

In memoir writing, where the pen reaches deep into the past and draws up strands of honey and excrement, a life’s array, with its tassels and flotsam dances around the well. Finally to have achieved expression, life beyond the tortured or torpid self, coherence, even. When I first encountered memoir writing, it was through the pen of Patricia Hampl, Saint Paul’s witty and poetic chronicler of immigrant and Catholic tribes. Her first book, A Romantic Education, still remains one of my favorites. She was my teacher in more ways then one.

My contribution to the genre includes what I like to call an “oral history memoir,” Minnesota Ojibway artist George Morrison’s chronicle–Turning the Feather Around: My Life in Art (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1998). After countless interviews, fashioning chapters of Morrison’s life from Chippewa City just northeast along Lake Superior from Grand Marais, to art school in Minneapolis, immersion in the heady days of abstract expressionism among the “big boys” of New York, as he called them, and then “turning the feather” back toward his native roots in Minnesota, we told the story of his eventful life in art, his words which I fashioned into sometimes laconic, sometimes brightly poetic chapters. When Morrison was given one of two solo exhibits at the opening of the Smithsonian’s new (and beautiful) Native American museum in Washington, I liked to believe that I’d helped him achieve that eminence.

But his story remained his, not mine. Along with some essays–one published in The House on Via Gombito–I’ve also written, joyously, laboriously and with more iterations than I can count–a memoir of traveling with my daughter the summer after her freshman year in college. Titled Falling for Botticelli, this memoir began as a joint project: our two voices sparring, twining, into a portrait of two generations coming unstuck and repositioning themselves in a new configuration. Every few weeks, I stand in front of the candles in the Saint Paul cathedral and watch a flame flicker with its cousins. “Let it come to light,” I pray. Publishing these days is a tricky business, what with the economy and competition from what I’ve recently started calling “screen” media. I will keep lighting the candles and hoping to entice the story between covers.

Recently, several students have sent me vivid, troubling life stories. These are stories of exhaustion, physical, emotional, spiritual. Of depletion, when the narrator’s youth becomes sucked out of her through constant motion, neglect, and gradual addiction to substances and damaging relationships. Praising the exquisite depiction of the writing, I also mourn the loss of what in education and psychology is called resilience, lost because the person was hounded by her own demons but also bereft of parental stability. That sometimes these stories emerge from the well of despond into coherence, not just of the pen but of the life, gives me hope. Writing a memoir sometimes celebrates that achievement, but writing a memoir can also catch the self in its free fall toward breakage. Now, writing this in the dark of a March morning, I lift up a candle to those young and older selves who struggle to climb out of the well. And hope that not only a rope of words, but many helping hands reach down to lift them up.

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